Sort Of Production Designer Chris Crane Pays Tribute To Toronto’s Queer Community

CBC’s new dramatic comedy Sort Of is already breaking barriers, as lead actor Bilal Baig becomes the first queer South Asian Muslim to star in a Canadian primetime TV series. Sort Of, which premiered on CBC Gem on October 5th and will premiere on CBC and HBO Max in November, follows Sabi, a genderfluid Torontonian Millenial straddling various identities in an attempt to figure out who they really are.

Co-created by Baig and DGC Ontario Director Fab FilippoSort Of exposes the labels we once poured ourselves into as no longer applicable…to anyone.

We spoke with DGC Ontario Production Designer on the series, Chris Crane, about showcasing Toronto’s varied neighbourhoods, diversity behind and in front of the camera, and the Sort Of set he was most excited to design.

Tell us about how you became the Production Designer of Sort Of.

Actually, a friend of mine had interviewed for the job. While she liked it, she thought it might be something that I would enjoy and connect with. I ended up knowing a producer on the show, so I reached out and had my first Zoom interview a few weeks later. This was in May/June of 2020, so it was a few months before we knew if the show was even going to go since it was still the early days of the pandemic.

Toronto often doesn’t get to “play Toronto” in films and television. But with Sort Of, Toronto is front and centre, and the entirety of the show was shot in Toronto. What was it like to get to showcase Toronto in Sort Of?

It was great! I grew up in Toronto, so it was nice to already know all the different areas and neighbourhoods that could work for different aspects of the show. Instead of looking for houses or neighbourhoods or restaurants that look like they are in a specific US city, or are visually interesting but non-specific, we actually showcased Toronto. From Sabi and Aqsa’s alleyway entrance, 2nd-floor loft-style, West-end apartment to Sabi’s family home in Mississauga to the West Queen West LGBTQ+ bookstore/bar; I hope we were able to accurately show off all the different flavours of living in and around Toronto.

Sort Of tells a very inclusive story and features queer, trans, and nonbinary folks (many of whom are People of Colour) living out their lives against the backdrop of Toronto. How did that sense of inclusivity play out behind the lens and on set?

Film and TV in Toronto (and Ontario) can be an inclusive and open creative environment, but in some respects it still has a ways to go. I am constantly working with different types of people in the Guild’s Art Department, so for Sort Of I reached out to BIPOC and LQBTQ+ crew I had worked with previously, but the pool of queer and BIPOC talent could always be larger!  For other departments like Set Dec or Props it can be more difficult. There is still work to do as far as bringing in and training more BIPOC and LQBTQ+ heads of department. But to my very talented Set Decorator’s credit, he was able to bring in a great team of Set Dressers from the non-union world. He made the calls and his union agreed to permit this team of talented, diverse people to work on our show. For myself, having the opportunity to work with so many BIPOC and LQBTQ+ cast and crew on this series was incredible. 

Sort Of’s production design depicts such a warm, authentic view of Toronto’s queer community, especially in sets like the Bar Bük, Sabi’s workplace. How did you and the Art Department pay tribute to Toronto’s queer community through Sort Of’s production design?

Bar Bük was the set I was most excited to do.  We ended up with a closed-down empty bar on West Queen West. The mission statement for Bar Bük was that it was a place outside of the Gay Village, and a place where anyone and everyone would be welcome. It was a safe space to figure out who you were and not have to be boxed in. We did a lot of research on the Gay and Lesbian movements all through the 1960s to now. We tried to incorporate different ideas and visual cues throughout the bar, showing how the movement progressed, and added more types of people to the mix like Trans, Bisexual, and Non-Binary rights. We did a large wall mural to showcase some of these visuals and ideas. If you look around the bar every nook and cranny has postcards, protest stickers, photos and articles about Deenzie (the owner of Bar Bük, played by Becca Blackwell) and their successes in the community. I wanted the place to feel like the kind of bars and shops I used to go to on Queen Street when I was in late high school, where there are four different kinds of wallpaper and random retro light fixtures.  It had to both feel like it had been there for a long time as well as somewhere young LGBTQ+  people – actually, all types of people – would want to hang out in today.

How are you hoping the world of Sort Of changes Canadians’ perceptions of what it means to be nonbinary?

Queer non-binary aspects aside, I do not believe that Canada has ever had a Pakistani lead in a series before. For them to also be a queer and non-binary person is incredible. The truth is, the character of Sabi is just a “regular” person; they have issues with their parents, they have fears about love, they juggle work with their social life. They get mad and say mean things. They are literally a “regular” person who also happens to be a non-binary person of colour. That’s what I hope the takeaway is. To see those that are different than us as actual people, and to ease up on judgement. 

To learn more about the origin story behind Sort Of, listen to our WIDER LENS podcast episode with co-creators Bilal Baig and Fab Filippo below.

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